Roberto Fonseca is one of those people for whom one could guess why life gave birth to them at a certain time, a certain place, in a certain family, even in such a physical disposition, down to the epidermal details of his fingers. But the mystery does not remain free from it, because if the innate remains decisive in his career, the pianist’s fingering does not depend only on the shape of the hand, and his genius on those who have helped shaping it. There are beings who have this extra thing, whose origin cannot be traced by the reason alone. Pianist, performer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, director, Fonseca was born in 1975 in a family of Cuban artists in La Havana. From the very beginning of his life in gestation, his relationship to the world is forged by rhythm, the harmony of the sound and the singing’s vibrations. Her mother, Mercedes Cortes Alfaro, was a dancer at the legendary Tropicana Club and was famous for her talent as a Bolero singer all over Cuba. His father, Roberto Fonseca Senior, was himself a musician, a drums player, and already had two sons dedicated to playing drums and percussion respectively. The young Roberto follows the footsteps of his elders, starting with the drums at the age of four – it is with a cover of the Beattles that he makes his first professional concert – but the call of the piano is not long in showing up, at the age of eight years old. From adolescence, he left the beaten track by composing his own songs. Looking back at his life, we can only underline the magic of a fulfilled destiny when we see that the prodigy made his first big appearance at the age of 15 at the Festival de Jazz de La Habana, a festival that twenty-six years later will be reinvested, and of which he will now hold the reins as first Artistic Director and successor of great Chucho Valdés. Remarkable again, the release of ABUC the same year, with a title which already announces its nuances (read CUBA upside down) is a metaphor of its own destiny since it is the album of a retrospective, where the past masterfully includes the future, reinvesting the heritage of Cuban music with a complete repertoire worthy of musicology, a challenge launched to all clichés for a singular, audacious and contemporary form. And the French Radio FIP to declare: “A dancing tale where jazz, contradanza, mambo, cha-cha-cha, bolero, hip hop, electro, the groove of a delirious Hammond organ and stormy brass sections mingle with happiness. In the spirit of descarga – these jams devoted to Cuban music – Fonseca invited a flamboyant all-star: Daymé Arocena, Carlos Calunga, Trombone Shorty, Eliades Ochoa, Zé Luis Nascimento, Rafael Lay (Orquestra Aragon) and Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal ”.
Roberto is already opening up the possibilities of opening up Cuban music with however the will to remain faithful to his heritage, by integrating the very famous Instituto Superior de Arte for a Master in Composition. He is also one of those exceptions who were able to leave Cuba at a very young age thanks to their talent. Back on the island, after a Tour in Italy, he joined Temperamento, a progressive jazz group led by saxophonist Javier Zalba, ina collaboration of nearly fifteen years, recording the album En el comienzo in 1998, which won the prize for Best Jazz Album at the “Cubadisco” ceremony. He recorded his first solo album Tiene que ver in 1999 and joined the Buena Vista Social Club in 2001, as the junior joker not shy from his follies, sometimes getting up from his stool to improvise while swinging with his whole body. He says his volcanic temperament comes from Xango (or Shango), the Orishas’ divinity of lightning, fire and war, a major figure in the Santeria of the Caribbean. “Since I was little, I have heard my mother tell me to learn to calm down”. It is this fire that will make him travel the globe at a frantic pace for the first time, alongside the legend Ibrahim Ferrer and the eternal Diva Omara Portuondo, within the Buena Vista Social Club. From that time on, wearing a little hat that he got from his grandfather, he was promised a great career. His collaborations with Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter end up propelling him into another galaxy. The very influential Gilles Peterson, London DJ and owner of several record labels in the United Kingdom, will ask him to arrange and produce the avant-garde project Havana Cultura in 2010, a double album that highlights the new generation of Cuban music ran from Reggaeton to Hip-Hop via Afro-Jazz, etc.
Wanting to retrace Roberto’s life and understand his journey is like wanting to dissect his music and explain how, in his masterful improvisations, the first note already contains all of the others. Roberto is very much like his compositions: to look at them is to loose oneself in an inexhaustible coherence, where each project takes on its meaning.
Looking back at his beginnings, we realize that in two years he had already completed four projects, and not just any. In 2000 was released the album No Limit, AfroCuban Jazz recorded in Japan, immediately followed by the album Elengó in 2001, a mix of Afro-Cuban rhythms, hip-hop and Drum’n’Bass; he has simultaneously working on the composition of the soundtrack for the film Black by Pierre Maraval which will lead to the production of the disc Un montón de cosas for the hip hop group Obsesión. He confessed in an interview: “These two years were very busy; I needed to express all my creativity; I didn’t know where all this was going, because each idea took me to a thousand others”. Whatever the “impulse” note is, among the infinity of possible ways, a piece of art comes as the fruit of it.
Thus Yo, nominated in 2012 at the Grammy Awards, this multi-vitamined album bringing together fifteen musicians from Cuba, Africa and the United States, album which was already germinating in the frustration of a Cuban child passionate about Jazz and Rock, banned at the time by the Communist regime. Roberto discovered Jazz at the age of 11 when one of his friends gave him a tape with Keith Jarrett on one side and Bill Evans on the other: “You had to be cunning to get the recordings. […] It turned everything upside down for me. I was discovering unknown territories of great beauty but I did not understand the rules of it. I was fascinated”, he recalls. This is all the more true for the part he gives to Africa, starting with the presence at the heart of the project of the Malian poly-instrumentalist Baba Sissoko whom he had met seven years earlier during his participation in the Echu Mingua disc. Africa is also as a quest rooted in the child blessed by the Orishas, initiated into Santeria: the album Yo, he says, “it was the record closest to me, I gave a large part of it to the African music. The influence of Africa is stronger than the influence of Jazz in my music. I share the Cuba of today”. For Roberto Fonseca, music is inseparable from his mystical experience. If Xango sets fire, he is also the “son of the two waters” of Yemaya, divinity of the sea, and of Oshun, mother of fresh waters. It is therefore significant that the last album is called Yesun, a contraction of Yemaya and Oshun. Roberto Fonseca’s music is then fluid and talkative, leaving more breathing, some tracks “agile and delicate at times, more punchy and muscular at others”, when Xango surfaces. (Extract from the press release).
How not to see in “7 Rayos” (2012) a fusion of Cuban sounds and classical music, West African instruments, electronic music and rhythmic poetry declaimed in slam, the crowning of the dreams of a teenager torn between the authority of a father, with endless hours of piano playing at the Havana Conservatory, indestructible, daily, and the thirst to open up to new things, to explode the Cuban borders or simply to enjoy what is happening was a stone’s throw away, there, in the streets of the modest neighbourhood Barrio Obrero of the south-eastern suburbs of Havana? “We were exclusively interested in classical music, in all the great composers, it was only later that we were allowed to be interested in other genres. When I finished my classes, my dad wouldn’t let me go play soccer with my friends, so I had to be discrete”. It is with the complicity of his mother who watched for the father’s return to the kitchen window, a mother to whom he pays tribute in the solo jazz-roots album Zamazu (2007), that the young boy was already deviating from the rules: “Have you been playing the piano all afternoon?” my father asked. “- Yes Dad. – But how is it that you are sweating? – Music does this to me, daddy!”. Decades later, he said that writing the track “7 Rayos” was a turning point in his life: “I was almost afraid to do something so crazy. But I mixed all of those elements together, creating a bridge between them and I loved the result. It was the start of a new era for Roberto Fonseca”.
If the style is already marked by vintage, with the swing of an American soul of the sixties which interferes between the percussions and in the well-known atmosphere of the Cuban descarga, as in the famous title “Motown”, it follows however the advice of the elders, in particular of the Buena Vista Social Club, reminding him to never forget where he comes from, even if he must always be more daring. Paying tribute to his origins, to his ancestors, is not a simple matter of “museum keeper” for Roberto; you have to know how to always go further in the discovery of a past rich in an infinite number of possibilities. This is how he brought together his favourite instrument with a kora, a Malian n’goni, a Hammond organ, with Caribbean drums of course and Senegalese percussions, with slam but also with very beautiful African voices. Among these voices, a woman, Fatoumata Diawara, a symbol, a confluence, and through her an unsuspected return to the roots, beyond the Yoruba, Benin and Nigeria, from Africa in all its musical and spiritual richness, from Mandingo harmonies to Gnawa rhythms: as evidenced in his live album At Home, released in 2015, produced at the Jazz in Marciac festival. Six years earlier, he recorded the Akokan album alongside the sublime Cape Verdean Mayra Andrade and the American guitarist Raul Midón. And in 2019, the participation of the rising star of Cuban rap, Danae Suarez, in his latest album Yesun. And in addition to his talented compatriot, prestigious guests such as Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Joe Lovano and Franco-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf take their places at his side.
Roberto Fonseca has not forgotten where he comes from and he still lives in Cuba. He made La Havana his laboratory. When not in collaboration or on tour, he performs twice a week at the Club Zorro y el Cuevo (The Raven and the Fox), supported by his musicians, drummer Ruly Herrera and his long-time collaborator, the double bass player Yandy Martínez-Rodriguez. And with the complicity of the audience, they explore new compositions, discovering themselves each time a little more with changes of lightning rhythms or opening spaces to let themselves being carried away where the music takes them. This is how Yesun was shaped.
What Roberto might not have imagined as a child was that his sense of aesthetics wouldn’t apply only to music. Only referring to, for example, the cover of the album Yo: Roberto is stripped of his hat and shirt, palms turned towards the sky, fingers made of a keyboard, marking the indivisibility of his body and his favourite instrument, purifying his ego from all futility, an ode to authenticity. An aesthetic sensibility no less revealed in his videos, with the clip “Aggua” by Joseph Ros, a way to salute the magic of water and a tribute to its protective divinities: “My music tells stories and I design it with images that always bring me back to tradition, to spirituality”. As for his stage outfit, the legendary designer Agnès B will sign her tailored costumes and refreshed his favourite hat in Byblos leather. His talent as a pianist as been be requested for her fashion shows as well as for high-end advertising campaigns.
In 1990 he was already chanting: “No matter where people are, I want them to be able to hear my music and say to themselves: this is Roberto Fonseca.” At only 45 years old, he can boast of his audacity and has not finished hearing the sound of his name with already 9 solo albums to his credit, including a nomination for the Grammy Awards, more than twenty albums in collaboration, all of this crowned with the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres received by the French Ministry of Culture in 2019. Roberto Fonseca, born to stand out, opens up new perspectives for young musicians from Cuba, who are inspired by his explorations beyond genres and his international success.